Review: Brussels Jazz Weekend

Real Brussels is nothing like the Brussels of politicised fiction, with its hordes of scheming Eurocrats and pencil pushers dressed in graphite grey – a land of sour milk and precious little honey, where crossing the road means parting a sea of red tape. It isn’t glum or buttoned up. It’s warm, convivial, bohemian and hip, a happy place to be a musician or a music fan. For a nation of scarcely 11 million, Belgium has always produced an impressive array of jazz talent. We have the Belgians to thank for Django Reinhardt, Toots Thielemans and the saxophone. And, as the inaugural Brussels Jazz Weekend proved, the Belgian scene continues to thrive.

This is an old new festival, which ran for 21 years as the Brussels Jazz Marathon, and the concept remains the same despite the rebrand: three days, over two hundred gigs at venues across the city with a focus on the Belgian scene, and all for free. In fact, it’s one of the biggest free jazz festivals in the world, and certainly the biggest two hours from central London by train.

This year there were five outdoor stages, flanked by beer tents and street food stalls, on squares across town. Place Sainte-Catherine, at the centre of a scruffy, hip neighbourhood that feels a little like London’s Soho, was the place to go for funk and ska-fueled party bands, including Saturday’s headliners, a six-piece called Opmoc, who took the stage to the sound of blaring sirens and had the young, intoxicated crowd jumping up and down 30 seconds into the first number. Place du Grand Sablon, in front of the exquisite, 15th century Brabantine Gothic Église Notre-Dame du Sablon, and Place Fernand Cocq Plein, a leafy square 30 minutes walk from the centre, were more genteel. While Place du Luxembourg, by the European Parliament, was half way between the two – and ultra-relaxed when I pitched up on Friday evening, with children playing and couples lounging on the grass, enjoying a soundtrack of balmy jazz-pop.  Read On…